San Diego

Pitch Perfect: Colombian Immigrant Lives American Dream on Soccer Field

Three years ago, Juan Camilo Salazar was just a kid in Colombia with dreams. One of those dreams was to play pro soccer.

“I want to be a professional soccer player, that’s my dream,” Camilo Salazar said those words to his mom three years ago while sitting at his dining room table in Colombia.

To make his dream come true, Camilo Salazar felt he had to leave Colombia and come to America where there was more opportunity.

“I wanted to look for something new. My sister was living in the states, I said to my mom why don’t we just go to the United States to see what happens. She said yes out of nowhere.”

In three months, Juan and his mom Martha Gallo packed everything they had and took a plane to San Diego.

“When I got here I didn’t have anything, just my mom and a suitcase next to me. That’s it. No English, nothing. It was just an adventure, when you feel inside that this is the right way to go.”

After arriving in San Diego in 2016, then 16-year-old Juan and his mom stayed with family, but finding their way in America was not easy.

"I was really nervous, the first 6 months were really tough," Juan said.

Martha worked multiple jobs, often 50 hours a week and struggled to make enough money to live. Meanwhile, Juan struggled to learn the English.

When asked how much English he knew, Juan said, “Nothing, none, the first week I was google translating everything.”

While language and culture were barriers, Juan found no borders with the soccer ball.

“The beautiful game you know, and that’s just play with the ball, have fun!" he said.

Juan’s soccer skills earned him spots on San Diego's elite club teams.

Off the field, things began to improve. His mom found a fulltime job as a caregiver. Juan and his mom moved into their own place. Juan enrolled at Mission Hills High School in San Marcos, took extra language classes and within a year he'd passed an English fluency test.

“So when I passed it, I got a paper that says I’m an official English speaker."

Life in America was good and it was about to get better, because then someone told Juan his soccer skills could get him into college for free.

"When I start to know that dude you can actually go for free to college, I said that’s insane! I felt really happy when I started getting recruiting calls."

After fielding calls from college recruiters, Juan accepted a scholarship to Cal State University San Marcos. Shortly after that he graduated from high school. Pretty amazing for a kid who didn't even speak English two years ago.

“The day I graduated and the day I committed [to CSUSM] are happiest moments in my life," he said.

Six games into Juan’s first college season, and things are perfect on the pitch.

Cal State San Marcos is undefeated, Juan is one of the team’s best players, and Juan’s mom is often in the stands cheering on her son.

And how’s this for a welcome to America moment? Just a few games into his first season, Juan scored his first career collegiate goal. After scoring goal number one, Juan ran over and hugged a friend waving the Colombian flag, then came over and gave his mom a kiss.

“You dream about moments like that. I thought about the Colombian flag first because Colombia is a country that I love, but I left there to find something new, but it’s in my heart. Then I went to my mom to dedicate it to her because without her I wouldn’t be here. She makes me be who I am. Every day I see my mom I have to be the best I can be, because I see her waking up at 6 a.m. to work, I don’t even have to worry about anything, she worries about everything. I just have to worry about being the best at soccer and school and that’s it. So it’s amazing.”

That first goal, a magical moment for Juan and mom too.

“Excited and so, so proud,” said Martha Gallo said when asked about her emotions after seeing Juan’s first collegiate goal.

A mom who took a chance to make her son's dreams come true, and Juan, a dreamer, who's living the American dream he dreamed of back in Colombia.

“This country is the best for dreamers like me. This country is the best for dreamers like me to make their dreams a reality. I am living proof that the American dream is still alive for people that are willing to work hard, this country gives you everything you need if you work hard and do the right thing.”

Of course, Juan's not yet a pro soccer player, but is anyone going to bet against him?

“I can’t wait to see what this journey brings me, I am really happy, I’m living my best life right now.”

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